In Focus

A Senufo Drum

The motifs carved in low relief on the cylindrical chamber of this drum are not merely decoration. They symbolize important cultural concepts. The horned face, for example, represents the carved face masks that junior members of the Poro society wear at funerary masquerades. Animal imagery includes a serpent being attacked by two long-billed birds, perhaps cranes or herons, and may refer to the potentially dangerous competing powers in the universe. The U-shaped form probably represents a python, which is both a symbol for the world and the primary insignia of the female Sandogo society diviners, who are able to ascertain the cause of threatening circumstances through the divining ritual. The crocodile, or giant lizard, and quadrupeds (i.e. wild animals) are symbols of threatening or destructive forces. The fetters, or forged iron manacles, symbolize the suffering Senufo ancestors endured during the Sudanese wars (Islamic jihads) of the 19th century and because of the forced labor the French imposed during the colonial period. A tortoise (not visible) is a divine messenger. It is also a symbol for water and, in recognition of its longevity and endurance, for health. The scalloped collar beneath the raised band encircling the drum may be purely decorative, but the inverted shapes at the bottom of the drum represent small animal horns that contained potent medicine.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 176-177.

Related Multimedia

gallery talk; DMA collection Drum (pliwo) 1981.139.FA; Africa, Côte d'Ivoire, Senufo peoples